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WHO Renews Push to Cut Hepatitis Infections in Babies in Asia

July 28, 2011

On World Hepatitis Day, the World Health Organization said it expects that nine countries in the Asia-Pacific region will not reach an infant hepatitis B virus infection rate of below 2 percent by 2012. These preventable infections are primarily transferred from mother to child during delivery. And, although HBV is 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV, immunization within one day of birth can help prevent infection.


Of those infected at birth, 90 percent will be chronically infected due to their undeveloped immune systems, and they will be at greater risk for liver cirrhosis and liver cancer later in life. The study said prevention efforts have stalled in Cambodia, Kiribati, Laos, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Vietnam.

The countries' infection rates have fallen from 8 percent in the 1980s, before immunizations were instituted, to approximately 3 percent to 4 percent, said Karen Hennessey, WHO's technical officer for its expanded program on hepatitis B immunization. However, they "don't look like they are going to make the 2 percent goal," she said, due to shortfalls in technical expertise, training, and funding.

In contrast, China has brought its infant infection rate to below 2 percent within the last five years through successful vaccination efforts, said Hennessey.

WHO has committed to bolstering hepatitis eradication efforts, with a focus on encouraging childbirth in facilities with trained personnel and proper immunization soon after delivery.

"If it's very difficult to get women into hospitals, either because [their homes are] remote or very poor, the other possibility is to make sure there is a skilled attendant at every birth ... trained to give vaccine within 24 hours," said Hennessey.

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